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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Unavoidable Ethical Dilemmas for Digital Journalists

This list of dilemmas and solutions developed from an Executive Roundtable on Digital Journalism Ethics, held at Santa Clara University December 5, 2011, and sponsored by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and the Online News Association.


1) Accuracy can become a casualty in the competition and hurry native to the 24/7 digital news environment. What systems should be in place to protect fact-checking? What factors should give priority to publication, vs. verification? Should news organizations alert users to trustworthiness of either information or sources?

2) Online, errors can live on forever. At the same time, misstatements can easily be erased from scrutiny. What is a news outlet's responsibility to track down errors that have spread through social media, and to highlight corrections?

3) What is the responsibility of a news organization to fact-check community-based reporting when a community member may be promoting one perspective or simply lack the training to sort fact from fiction? If such reporters have conflicts of interest—clear political agendas or financial interests, for example—is it enough to identify these? Should community contributors be held to the same ethical standards as staff journalists?


1) When is it appropriate for journalists not to publish information, even when it might already be publicly available or improve site metrics? (For example, mug shots from traffic violations, teacher names paired with their students’ test scores, DUI citations of non-public figures.)

2) Social media companies are promoting "frictionless sharing" and the linkage of personal information across the Web. What is journalism's responsibility to privacy? Should news organizations set a limit to user information sharing either internally or externally, even when it might help build advertising or audience?

3) How should news organizations handle user information collected via user registration, Facebook pages, Google+, location-based social media and subscriptions? Should the editorial/business divide be maintained when it comes to social media? How transparent must a news organization be about its use of reader data?

4) How can journalists who use social media to promote their stories and build a following protect against perceptions of bias or influence peddling?


1) Pressure has increased to bridge the business/editorial divide. Should newsroom staff be protected from or participate in decisions about handling sponsors or targeting specific audiences?

2) Metrics provide valuable insight into user habits and trends. But how much should metrics drive publishing decisions? Should news organizations focus on the most popular topics and lessen emphasis on longer, more complicated stories that may not draw audience?

3) Should metrics influence reporting and writing decisions? Should journalists be protected from story metrics or should they be trained how to use them to strengthen reporting and writing practices?

Inclusion/Free-Flow of Information

1) What is the responsibility of journalists to actively break down the silos of perspective, information, and ideological frames that populate the Internet?

2) What is the responsibility of journalists or news sites to actively integrate the demographic niches (race, class, gender, generation and geography) that can characterize news sites, blogs and other digital media?

Potential solutions

Technological Strategies

  • Include a correction button with every story allowing readers to alert reporters and editors to inaccuracies. Make corrections policy clear to users.
  • Create a permanent URL for a story and update the piece there; allow the story history (and errors) to be visible to users.
  • Assign story elements (data, photographs, video, quotes) a unique identifier so that when it is used elsewhere, readers will be able to see its provenance and original context.
  • Create a "story bank" of orphan content with low initial readership that might attract new or niche audiences elsewhere. ( for news content.)
  • Develop a checklist in the CMS for cross-checking content across multiple platforms: Did you check the spelling of every name? How many sources did you include? Were diverse sources consulted?
  • Make annotation and footnotes (such as those used in fact-checking) visible to users.
  • Create an award for apps and other technologies that support accuracy, inclusivity, and other core journalism values.
  • Develop technology that can surface a mix of perspectives and link demographic silos.
  • Develop metrics that reach beyond measuring clicks in order to align with the journalistic mission and possibly enhance revenue potential.
  • Show source of grant- or fellowship-funded journalism using taglines or other means.

Human Strategies

  • Update corrections policies and create a corrections/revisions work flow.
  • Create systems that reward accuracy over speed, and encourage traditional journalism awards to do the same.
  • Create a set of codes and principles for community-based journalists.
  • Offer brown bag sessions around ethics case studies, including some cases that highlight differing business and editorial values. Invite everyone in the organization, includingsales and programmers.
  • Integrate ethics into the organization culture. Develop a set of shared values central to the journalism mission that support credibility and thus contribute to revenue and sustainability.
  • Develop a niche and movement for “slow journalism.”
  • Recruit a diverse staff across all levels and specialties.
  • Create project teams across business, technology and editorial departments.
  • Develop campaign(s) to market the importance of journalism's commitment to ethics, investigation, and credibility to the public.
  • Train everyone in metrics and how to use them to serve values-based storytelling.
  • Define transparency for the organization so that people from different backgrounds (eg business and journalism) will have a shared understanding of what this means.
  • Urge funders to use diversity among staff and founders as a metric for grants.

Educational Strategies

  • Avoid focusing too much on specific technologies because of the speed of change. Provide opportunities for students to develop comfort with different platforms and train them to be adaptable.
  • Teach students how to collaborate with technologists and entrepreneurs.
  • Make sure the basics aren't lost: critical thinking, hard questions, source development, good storytelling, and basic grammar.
  • Teach media literacy to the general public and to students outside journalism. Help them appreciate the importance of civic participation.
  • Offer continuing education on metrics, platforms, etc.
Feb 16, 2012